Areas for Strategic Action to Enhance Societal Collective Intelligence

I believe that any person or group wishing to catalyze the emergence of a sustainable civilization must take strategic action to enhance the collective intelligence of entire societies.

(NOTE: The term “whole society” or “entire society” does not here refer to a mere population of individuals. It refers to a more or less coherent living system made up of interactive individuals, groups, organizations, networks, etc., whose functioning unfolds within the structures, narratives, and patterns of interaction defined by that social system. A whole social system is greater than — and essentially other than — the sum of its parts. And that whole constantly demonstrates some measure of intelligence as it responds (or not) to the conditions within and around it.)

Anything that enables a society to adapt to changing circumstances — to survive and thrive on an ongoing basis — is part of its collective intelligence. To the extent 21st century societies are able to creatively adapt to rapidly changing social and environmental conditions, they will survive and thrive in the long run. To the extent they cannot, they will collapse and die. It seems increasingly clear that the emerging crises we face will not leave us a lot of wiggle room.

A comprehensive effort to build this capacity embraces many (but not all) other approaches, including community resilience, democracy-building, sustainable technologies, green economics, and more. As a focus for transformational activism, “societal collective intelligence” highlights particular initiatives, upgrading their significance in the overall transformational effort. I suggest that a focus on improving this whole-society CAPACITY transcends all other issues, for the simple reason that all other issues, by definition, will only be resolved through the exercise of collective intelligence. If this capacity is weak or distorted, the issues will not be resolved. That is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

If we wish to enhance society-level collective intelligence, we need to ask:

How does an entire society, as an intelligent organism, perceive, reflect, understand, act on its understandings, and then reflect on the results of its actions in navigating its fit with its environment?  What are the systems it uses to do this?

To answer this question we must delve into political systems, government systems, economic systems, informational systems, cultural stories, and much more. These are comparable to the senses, brains, nerves, endocrine and other systems in an individual organism. They take in and process information for the whole (social) body, initiate responses, and process the real-world results of those responses into new patterns of behavior on an ongoing basis. 

That our society’s systems for collective intelligence fail to do this well enough is exactly the issue here. We, as catalysts for sustainability, need to remedy that. Our success will not only support our civilization’s survival and thrival, but may itself constitute the most significant leap in the history of cultural evolution.

This essay suggests one possible pattern for strategic thinking about how to proceed with catalyzing greater societal collective intelligence. It names a set of six overall strategies that clarify what a catalytic movement of this kind might profitably focus on, and how it might go about doing its work. I hope this essay also helps distinguish this capacity-building approach from other forms of activism, change work and philanthropy — particularly efforts to directly protest, prevent, ameliorate or punish harms done, or to raise the consciousness of a critical mass of the population to itself trigger a mass shift. Finally, it is not intended as a comprehensive agenda or a platform, but rather as a stimulant for those committed to this approach, to co-create more sophisticated proposals than are possible here.

1. TARGETS FOR TRANSFORMATION: Identify what changes in existing systems — or new systems — are needed to enhance societal collective intelligence to support civilizational sustainability.  The hypothetical program offered here (see A-D below this numbered list) includes four broad zones of change: economics, politics, technology, and culture.

2.  FOCUSED CATALYTIC ACTION: Ensure there are groups working on these targets. Bring attention and resources to those that exist; catalyze those that don’t into being.  Convene them in generative strategic conversations to free up stuck or potential energy — and in networking systems to increase collaborations and synergies. Help them be aware of their role in developing society’s cognitive systems (this is a potential use of pattern languages for approaches to social change and factors in societal intelligence). Make philanthropists aware of them and their value.

3.  SELF-EDUCATION: Expand our own sophistication — the complexity and usefullness of our own thinking — about these targeted changes. It is vital that we know enough to be conversant and co-creative in these areas.

4.  LEADERSHIP: Engage leaders of all kinds in realization and action around these targeted changes.  Develop educational materials and actual policies, plans, programs, tools, measurements, etc., that are actionable by these leaders in their areas of influence.

5.  PUBLIC ALIGNMENT: Develop educational, PR, and entertainment campaigns that popularize these needed changes by addressing the fears, aspirations, self-interest, etc., of targeted populations needed to support the policies, plans, and programs being pushed by enlightened leaders.  This creates a context within which these systemic changes can more effectively be established and maintained.

6.  EVOLUTIONARY CAPACITY: Ensure that the above includes building society’s capacity to reflect on and appropriately change the systems that enable its collective intelligence — in other words, society’s ability to improve its own collective intelligence on an ongoing basis. In this way, the transformational movement makes itself obsolete and morphs into an ongoing function of the social organism.


Within each of these targeted systems, I’ve listed four areas of focus, with examples of each. As noted earlier, these lists are only intended to stimulate further creative strategic thinking and dialogue. They are not comprehensive. Note also that many of these zones and areas of focus are highly interdependent, some having significant potential impact on others.

A. ECONOMIC TARGETS – Institutionalize healthy feedback loops into everyday economic practice, so that consumers, producers and other economic players play their self-interested roles in ways that serve the well-being of the whole rather than undermining it. Such economic functioning is exactly comparable to a healthy individual metabolism which supports individual intelligence, but in which disorders can interfere with one’s ability to function mentally, emotionally and physically.

  • Internalized costs: Include the environmental and social costs in the prices of goods and services that generate those costs. Example: A carbon tax. 
  • Holistic economic indicators (measurements): Example: Move beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures only total money spent in the economy, to Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) which measures a society’s quality of life. 
  • Metacurrencies: Revise our current currency systems and/or create new/multiple currency systems that more fully reflect and serve the flow of real value. Examples: Community currencies and the work of Arthur Brock and Eric Harris-Braun. &
  • Localization/subsidiarity: Develop production, consumption, exchange, gifting, and waste handling at the most local practical level for any given product or service. Example: Community supported agriculture, community gardens, big-box store bans, and household wind and solar installations.

B. POLITICAL/GOVERNANCE TARGETS: Monitor and reduce concentrations of social power that tend to distort public intelligence, while enhancing the public’s capacity to shape wiser decisions that, in turn, shape wiser collective behaviors.

  • Collective reflective capacity: Involve diverse citizens and stakeholders in ways that inject higher quality collective thought processes into political and governmental activity. Examples:  Deliberative democracy; public dialogue and deliberation on public issues, especially empowered citizen deliberative councils; stakeholder dialogues and watershed councils. 
  • Power balance and answerability: Prevent concentrations of social power from skewing whole-society decision-making and action. Examples: Limit the influence of money on politics and governance; limit corporate power and eliminate the legal fiction of corporate personhood; improve governance transparency and answerability systems. 
  • Making the body politic more whole: Reduce divisiveness, oppression and degradation that impede the utilization of society’s full cognitive resources and its ability to act coherently. Examples: Restorative justice; transpartisan and multi-cultural work; truth and reconciliation commissions; negotiation/mediation/diplomacy institutions; meta-medical public health systems (a la the Healthy Cities movement that embraced peace, justice, community and a clean environment — in addition to medicine — as sources of public health); whole-system responses to disasters, including learning from them and about what caused them (e.g., the earth may cause earthquakes but socioeconomic factors produce the weak buildings, poverty, and environmental degradation that turn earthquakes into full scale disasters) 
  • Civic renewal:  Revitalization of participatory democracy at all levels so that many normal governance functions are done by community action, with public officials, bureaucrats and technocrats supporting the self-organized “distributed intelligence” and collective power of the population. Examples: Community resilience programs like Transition Towns; empowered neighborhood associations; future search conferences, community vision and study circle programs; Asset Based Community Development; participatory budgeting; Curitiba’s food for garbage and other participatory programs. 

C. TECHNOLOGICAL TARGETS: Create know-how and tools to enable success in other strategic fields and in the general collective intelligence of society. (Note that this includes social as well as material and digital technologies.)

  • Technologies of connectivity and interactivity: Tools for more effective collaboration, networking, conversation, etc. Examples: Open Space Technology (and other conversational process methods), wiki, social networking software 
  • Tools that enable accessible collective knowledge and resources:  Promote collective memory and the “global brain”. Examples: Public databases and libraries; computation and accessible presentation of complex information (from charts to drama to graphic facilitation); search engines and tagging; mobile apps for “community mapping” 
  • Sustainable technologies: Align our know-how and design approaches with the patterns of nature and the dynamics of wholeness. Examples: Biomimicry; renewable energy; permaculture; pattern languages 
  • Methods that change collective behavior:  Public relations technology (e.g., anti-cigarette campaigns, soap operas that reduce domestic violence, reallity TV programs like “30 Days” — see also “Cultural Story Targets” below); support groups (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous, neighborhood eco-teams); ongoing competitions among teams, companies, neighborhoods, that highlight and reward desired behaviors 

D. CULTURAL STORY TARGETS: Generate a new cultural “story field” which increases public understanding of interrelated ecological, evolutionary, systemic, cultural, and psycho-spiritual realities; the positive use of disturbance and crisis; the heroic dimensions of our times; etc. A story field shapes what those in its realm of influence consider good, valuable, true and possible. Develop this new story through its many diverse forms and push them into mass culture — including but not limited to workshops — to create a generative context for successes in other strategic fields.

  • Educational curricula and methodologies (e.g., systems thinking classes in grade school; collaborative education; green business schools) 
  • Journalism (e.g., Journalism that Matters; possibility journalism like Yes! and Ode magazines) 
  • Entertainment and the arts (e.g., Avatar; social experiments in Second Life; Free Range Graphics) 
  • Science and research (e.g., community science; the numerous meaningful narratives emerging about our proper role as agents of evolution and nature, like Berry and Swimme’s THE UNIVERSE STORY)

(written for a conference on upgrading the impact of the sustainability movement) 

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